In the early days I distinctly recall telling one of my ex-coworkers (who now revels in the joy of an air conditioned, Monday to Friday office job) that cheffing was a “piece of piss mate!”
“It’s not summer yet!”
My personality demands that I excel in one particular area – acknowledging when I am wrong.* AND BOY WAS I WRONG ABOUT THE PIECE OF PISS PART.
From Boxing Day until the second week of January, the restaurant I work at goes MENTAL. It’s like a slammin’ weekend day except it’s every. Single. Day. While not quite as mad, the rest of January up until the end of March is an extension of this two week period.
As the holiday season approaches, we are consistently getting busier. Two weeks ago I worked hot side with another junior and between us we served 70 people for breakfast. On a Wednesday. Weekend breakfasts can average anywhere between 70 – 100 even in winter. Last Saturday we did 120. With three of us thank FUCK but even that was hard.
This particular busy Wednesday, after a decent (in other words, challenging for someone who’s always undercooking her steaks and who’s mother agreed when told “sorry, your fish could have been better”) start to lunch service and while explaining to my coworker why I needed him to STFU, I realised exactly what is making this job so difficult for me right now.
This is not my second nature.
I’m still a complete and utter rookie.
And as much as I love banter and inane conversation (my convos are basically nothing but), I CAN’T FUCKING CONCENTRATE WHEN YOU’RE TALKING AT ME BOY!
I got very comfortable very quickly in the realm of toast and salads, at a pace that was conducive to knowing what the fuck I was doing. I somewhat managed to gain control over more than four dockets at a time, and as I grew used to the cold side – and admittedly bored – I felt very much ready for the summer ahead.
Coming back from almost two months off work (to temporarily live the dream in Japan with a week either side), I went straight back to hot side, for at least half of my weekly shifts.
Hot side at breakfast consists mostly of eggs with a bit of putting sides in the oven (another job I prematurely branded as being “easy”). At lunch we pan fry fish, grill steaks, and make stuff in a wok more or less.
I don’t recall feeling this bewildered and overwhelmed when I first started on cold side – even when it was busy – but on hot, it feels like I’m back where I started except worse. Once the orders stack up, it takes an immense level of concentration that I’ve never had to apply to anything I’ve done in my life. Ever.
When a waiter tells me my Mum’s in, I can only bark back, “cool!” I definitely don’t have the spare energy to make small talk with or be remotely friendly to delivery people. If I’m asked a question by anyone – waiters, other chefs, THE chef – it’s extremely difficult to muster a response, let alone a correct or relevant one.
Because if draw my attention elsewhere, and away from the house of cards that is the five plus dockets I have on order (please imagine the cards are actually made of till roll for an accurate representation of how delicate a grasp I have on mentally and physically coordinating multiple orders at once), the entire structure will come falling to the grease lined floor. Much like I feel like doing when there’s another two and a half hours to go on top of an eight hour shift because it was too hectic to think about your prep list and even if you had the luxury of a third chef they were too busy helping out during service to get everything done.
I thought this problem was reserved for my hot side shifts until we did that 120 for breakfast last week. I was on cold side – plating mueslis, slicing fruit, binning shitty avocados while cursing, making toast, the usual. Our head chef stepped in to help (coming in on his day off to cover a no show – that’s real #cheflife for you) but even the help was overwhelming.
“What do you need?”
I honestly don’t know. What is he doing? What am I doing?? I’m spinning in literal circles trying to figure out what’s going on and why I decided to do this, that’s what.
When orders are coming in steadily but at a pace we can handle, hot side and cold communicate timings in order to have tables come up at the same time with individually prepared and team effort items. But when it’s mother fucking balls to the wall busy, it feels I’m in a rip drifting out to sea and hot side is dragging me sideways, trying their best to get us both out of this mess, except I’m a shit swimmer and I’m swallowing water and I’m definitely probably doing to die from secondary drowning.
Really though, the overwhelming part is keeping track of your dishes/toast, what you have and haven’t done/toasted, where you’re at with all the individual components/toasts, and looking down the line at what to start/toast next. That and operating more than one timer simultaneously.
I went back over my past blogs to see if I’d already made a point similar to the above and it turns out I have. I might be better at managing dockets now but not by very much it seems. And the main challenge working in the kitchen is still coordinating multiple orders at once.
Our most demanding shifts at present are not even the most demanding shifts to come. Last pay cycle I did 88 hours over nine days – an average of about 9.75 hours per day. That’s almost 10. That’s with no sit down breaks (and no stand up ones either because I don’t smoke), without a proper meal (a cold poached egg downed in one bite – two if I’m taking my time – doesn’t count), and sometimes so little time to spare, that my usually VERY regularly scheduled bowel movement is postponed to later in the day, or worst of all, cancelled altogether.
I don’t know at what point an inexperienced chef manages to rise above these difficulties – whether it’s time and therefore experience, increased training and therefore increased knowledge, or eventually you have an epiphany resulting in a higher level of kitchen functioning where nothing is a problem and despite being three coffees deep in as many hours into your shift you’re so zen you can’t feel your heart beating.
But until I reach that point, please think of me this summer – guessing which timer is going off for what, flashing my rare sirloin under the sally, still burning the fucking toast – and laugh, because after more than ten years working alongside chefs and adjacent to kitchens I’m a damn fool for not realising what I was getting into.
*Please note that acknowledgement is not the same thing as admitting. There’s a huge difference between a huff/grunt/sigh and actually SAYING “I was wrong.”
Image via my hilarious boss, taken after a busy breakfast during a long weekend. Originally and fittingly captioned “the breakfast section has some prep to catch up on.”